nights at serampore: a few favorite anthologies.

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  1. Herbert Van Thal, The First Pan Book of Horror Stories.
  2. Ray Bradbury, Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow.
  3. Italo Calvino, Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday.
  4. Mike Mitchell, The Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy: 1890-2000.
  5. Groff Conklin, Science Fiction Terror Tales.
  6. John Pelan, Century’s Best Horror Volumes One and Two.
  7. Dorothy L. Sayers, The Omnibus of Crime.
  8. David G. Hartwell, The Science Fiction Century.
  9. Alberto Manguel, Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature, Black Water: More Tales of the Fantastic.
  10. Leonard Wolf, Wolf’s Complete Book of Terror.

This is not an anthology Top 10. If it was, it would be terribly out of order and also guilty of excluding a very well known work, The Weird by the Vandermeers. I chose these because they a) were extremely influential to me, b) are lesser known than they should be, and/or c) have eccentric inclusions. (I’ve also excluded a number of anthologies, including some that would be on a best of listing, just because I’ve covered them here before.) If this were a rough Top 10, for what it’s worth, Alberto Manguel’s Black Water series would be at the very top, just above The Weird. You can see that it takes some from the earlier Sayers anthology, as well as snippets from the Borges/Ocampo/Casares work, The Book of Fantasy, but he does an incredible job resurrecting little known works of tremendous power. Take a look at Manguel’s website for a better formatted version of the table of contents, in the “Anthologies” section under the “Works” header.

The Wolf anthology was the christening of my prodigal return to dark and fantastic fiction after a long journey away. The First Pan book is justly legendary and surprisingly potent still, packed with gem after gem, ranging from ghastly pulp grue to literate, ambiguous strangeness. I think it has the best selection of any in the Pan Horror series. I won’t give a detailed breakdown of every book here, but the Conklin is great, the Bradbury is wonderful, the Mitchell stunning. Pelan’s selections I find goofy sometimes, but I’m a fan of doorstoppers, and Century’s Best fits the bill and is chock full of excellent obscurities.

I’ve been recovering from some detestable illness and a bout of insomnia, so the entries on here have been frankly shit for some period of time. I have more in depth posts I’ve been working on, and really want to do something on Joanna Russ, especially her collection The Hidden Side of the Moon, which was spectacular.

 

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the mammoth book of thrillers, ghosts and mysteries.

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Thought I’d go over a great old anthology, The Mammoth Book of Thrillers, Ghosts and Mysteries, edited by J.M. Parrish and John R. Crossland and published by Odhams Press in 1936. It’s a musty old thing, embossed with a flying bat on the cover and filled with illustrations by a variety of magazine illustrators from the era. It has a sealed section at the end, comprising many of the choicer terror tales, and marked with hyperbolic warnings about reading alone and at night. Each selection comes with its own author portrait, drawn by an unknown artist or series of artists. Some of these are rather bad, such as the oddly sinister one of M.R. James, where he looks like some sort of angry banker who has just found out his workers are unionizing – but others are quite good, such as Aldous Huxley and Guy de Maupassant. (The purveyors of the illustrations themselves are credited on their own page.)

I picked this up for 12 bucks about two or three years ago, so my memory of the contents is not as vivid as it could be, but I write down all the decent stories I read in a notebook so that helps. I’m not going to give this a serious critical dressing-down, as this is more about providing a casual look-through at a relatively easy to find anthology which is still running at an affordable price and is packed with lesser known contributions to the tradition of British strange fiction.

Some of the highlights are Michael Arlen’s “The Ghoul of Golders Green,” a story so enjoyable I didn’t even mind that it had a blazing atrocity of a crap ending. This was my first introduction to Arlen (the former Dikran Kouyoumdjian), an acquaintance I was glad to extend when I later read his excellent and uproarious “The Gentleman from America.” J.D. Beresford contributes an enigmatic puzzle of a tale in “Powers of the Air,” a piece that might give Robert Aickman a run for his money in the unpopular ‘How Many Unexplained Things Can You Have in Your Story’ contest.

Joseph Conrad’s unremittingly tense “The Secret Sharer” is included. A piece by the aforementioned Mopin’ Maupassant, “The Hostelry,” also quite strong and atmospheric; a man keeping watch over an out of season and snowed-in hotel, deep in some European mountains whose specific location I can’t bring myself to give a shit about and remember.

Huxley’s “The Dwarfs” is great, James’ “The Mezzotint” is one of my favorite bits by him (I’ve included the illustration for it below). Jerome K. Jerome’s “The Dancing Partner” is here, and it is a deserved classic, brutal, abrupt, and horrid in every way. Onion’s “Rooum” is solid, Barry Pain’s “The Green Light” is a fun but slighter offering from him.

Robert Louis Stevenson steals a folktale from Hawaiians and comes out with “The Island of Voices,” likely my favorite thing by him. The anonymous “Tale of a Gas-light Ghost” is tremendous, which I was not expecting at all. I had my first dalliance with L.P. Hartley here, in the well-known “A Visitor from Down Under,” which is as humorous as it is unnerving, and condenses everything I love about the British style of doing weird, odd, and strange fiction.

William Hope Hodgson also contributes his woeful tale of fungal foibles in “The Voice in the Night,” which still astounds me that it was written in 1907 and is so thoroughly and wonderfully cruel, disgusting, and funny. This was quite a bit before the housing fungal-fiction bubble in the late 20th century, long before the gob of fungi became a standard device and fetishized accoutrement in the world of weird fiction.

I can remember little of P.C. Wren’s “Presentiments,” but I graded it an ‘A’ in my notebook so it must have been good. It was Freudian, as I recall, about a smothering and jealous mother who hounds her daughter into an early grave and is not even consciously aware of her own smoldering hatred for her offspring.

This anthology is still out there and relatively affordable, and it comes with my entirely worthless and dubious recommendation. Apparently this post has screwed up my blog’s format, somehow, which irritates me to no end but which I don’t feel like doing anything about now.

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sleeping sphinxes: ‘tales of the german imagination.’

Cover featuring Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's woodcut "Self Portrait; Melancholy of the Mountains."

Cover featuring Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s woodcut “Self Portrait: Melancholy of the Mountains.” (1929).

“Enough,” replied the dreamlike presence, “take your flowers cheerfully, as life offers them, and don’t dig for their roots in the ground, it’s sad and silent down below.” – Josef von Eichendorff, ‘The Marble Statue.’

I’ve just finished the Penguin anthology Tales of the German Imagination from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann. It is a survey of German fantastic fiction, running from early Märchen (the rougher German term for fairy tales) to the expressionism of Georg Heym and the Dadaism of Kurt Schwitters. Oft anthologized classics such as Hoffman’s “The Sandman” and Adelbert von Chamisso’s “Peter Schlemiel” are included, but so are a large number of more obscure pieces. Writers more unknown to English speaking audiences such as Klabund and Salomo Friedlander make appearances, while other inclusions come from unlikely sources such as Robert Walser and the poet Paul Celan (whose befuddling prose-poem “The Shadowlight” I found disappointing.)

Editor Peter Wortsman notes in the introduction the hard-edged quality to much of German fantasy, its preoccupation with the macabre and the violent. The violence in this anthology begins with fratricide in the Grimms’ “The Singing Bone” and and culminates in the absolutely horrific and bloody “The Lunatic” by the poet Georg Heym. This tale follows an asylum inmate released for mysterious reasons who goes on a killing rampage that begins in the pond-haunted countryside and ends in the dullness of a shopping center in the town. It is brief, brutal, and bereft of moralizing or sentiment. The most disquieting segment of the story is when the eponymous lunatic tromps through a field and imagines that the ripe stalks bursting under his feet are the heads of random strangers. It is a conte cruel at heart, with all of the extremity of famous practitioner Charles Birkin, and none of the cleverness that suggests he is telling a joke.

I remember reading Joe R. Lansdale’s “Night They Missed the Horror Show,”* with its dedication to the author’s friend, presenting it as “a story that doesn’t flinch.” Heym does not flinch here, either. Nor does he blink. Something of the “invisible spectator” objectivity of Paul Bowles is here as well, as if the story’s point of view came from that of an indifferent bird circling overhead, sharp eyes sucking in the deranged vision with perfect calm.

A more humorous exercise in such loamy, Teutonic, worm-wriggling darkness comes from the aforementioned Kurt Schwitters, whose “The Onion” is about a man sentenced to execution and consumption by the state. Its plot doesn’t sound like a merry, piss-inducing chuckle compared to the Heym piece, but its violence is of the madcap variety, that belonging almost to early Schlesinger cartoons. It is every bit as gory as “The Lunatic” but its treatment could not be more different, both in that its structure is as disordered as the mental state of the former’s protagonist, but also in that every swing of the knife seems to be met with literary “anvil” sounds and to echo with not-yet-invented canned laughter.

Moving on to less bodily focused fare, Wolfgang Borchert’s “The Dandelion” is a beautifully wrought tale of a prisoner (imprisoned for obscure reasons, of course) who is brought out every day into the exercise yard to run in a circle around a pitiful scrub of field. In the midst of rancorous hatred and jealousy of his fellow inmates, he falls in love with a yellow dandelion flower that has shot up out of the meager pittance of a field. The final passage is truly lovely and bewildering, something warranting meatier consideration than the miserly rendering given here. Suffice to say it is a highlight.

Ingeborg Bachmann’s “The Secrets of the Princess of Kagran” features a landscape reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows.” The captured-then-escaped princess navigates a wind scoured swamp, vast and unfamiliar, resonant with the slushing of willow through water, charged with the possibility of starvation.

But enough summation. I’d rather temporarily silence the gaseous trumpets of blathering, and provide a different viewpoint for this anthology: namely, a fractured look at its various fictions by presenting completely out of context quotes and mashing them together senselessly like a charlatan. These were wandering phrases, knights-errant clauses blundering through the stupefied landscape of my brain, which I picked out capriciously, redundantly, and for no reason at all. Is this avant-garde? Or just bullshit? Bullshit-garde? I don’t know. Nor care. They hopefully will provide another piece of evidence for the prosecution of this alleged “German imagination.” Say what you will, such excerption might not be German to this blog posting, but neither is it Hungary for provocation:

the plants, herbs, flowers, and trees are all squirming in pain, consumed by a great wound

the sculpture of Venus, now so terribly white and motionless

he knelt over their faces and blew air into the holes in their skulls

a spider that squeezes a scaffold out of its rear end

at least my children will no longer do without their own guillotine and gallows

the frenzy of that imagined-inflicted kiss, kissed by the demons

sleeping sphinxes nestled beneath the dream spectres of the trees

this hostile landscape, a world of willow, wind and water

‘bone rot!’ i screamed and let yellow dust fall from my ribs

to scout out the greatest iniquity, the cross was nailed onto Christ

i took my legs out of my knapsack

i’ve just pinioned my sister as a weather-vane on the church steeple

she turned her back to the mirror, for she could not abide its vanity

on a plate with knife and fork they served up the eyes

flowers sprouting from his skin: anemones

Benes Knupfer (1848-1910), The Embrace.

Benes Knupfer (1848-1910), The Embrace. One of my favorite paintings. Man, it’s nice.

 

* Don’t read this Lansdale story if you are not okay with the dialogue of a bunch of racist fucks dropping slurs every other sentence. And also violence, and also whatinthefuckwasthatshitjesus

a strange anthology.

Just picked up a massive anthology from 1944 (my copy is a reprint from ’47) in an Oakland bookshop. It’s called Pause to Wonder: Stories of the Marvelous, Mysterious, and Strange. It’s always a pleasant surprise when I see a big anthology I’ve never heard of before, particularly one with such an eccentric table of contents. It’s in overall great condition, but I got it for extremely cheap because it is missing two pages – two pages which unfortunately consist of a piece of fiction I’d have liked to read by Sylvia Townsend Warner, called “Nelly Trim.”

The contents appear eclectic, though the overall tone is likely less macabre than I would generally like, and more inclined to lighter fantasy than fictions of terror. But it looks to hold a good deal of the literary strange from the likes of Walter de la Mare and the early folkloric fiction of W.B. Yeats. Like many fantastic anthologies from this period, the author demographics are almost exclusively white and British/American, a fact which becomes monotonous after awhile when dealing with a lot of these collections, though in all fairness is attributed here in the introduction to lack of funding for translations. But still, you have Pliny and Chesterton thrown together, which is always fun and kind of compensates for it.

(Which, incidentally, is another of the many reasons I appreciate Ann and Jeff Vandermeer for their work on The Weird: A Compendium. Besides being incredible and far-reaching in general, it brings together early 20th century fictions from a variety of sources which generally are not lain side by side. Luigi Ugolini so close to Francis Marion Crawford, just a village away from Merce Rodoreda, not so far from Ben Okri? Take my money!)

Have a look.

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book finds of the past year.

“…but books make good burrows in which to hide, and few places are as redolent of the little escape as a library; the shelves of fiction, history, geography, each book a pretext for derealization, patiently awaiting the moment when it will be coupled to some vague reverie.” – Nick Land.

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So many little escapes. These are only some of the books I’ve gotten over the past year or so. Some novels are missing, quite a few anthologies, as well as some philosophy and cultural criticism. I haven’t quite read everything, but this should be a representative sample of the kind of literature I’ll engage with in this blog, if that wasn’t clear enough already.

Captioning all of these messes up the format, so I’ll just clarify: the illustration, third from the top left, is by Hugo Steiner Prag from an unbelievably cheap ($2) edition of the stories of Hoffman I picked up awhile back. I almost exclusively buy used in support of my book problem, and that’s really the only way to go. I’ve only recently moved to an area that has a decent public library, so my accumulation should decrease – but still, who can resist an old paperback antho for a dollar fifty?

I’ll wrap this post up with a close-up of a beautiful logo or heraldic symbol from the Wagenknecht “Fireside Book of Ghost Stories” collection:

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